4.2 Situating my view within the field of epistemology

During the last century, two major strands developed within Western philosophy, namely the Anglo-American analytical tradition and the Continental hermeneutic-phenomenological tradition, with later movements such as existentialism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and critical theory. Both strands have (different) Saxon representatives; the former notably Frege, Wittgenstein, and the Vienna Circle, including Schlick, Carnap, and Neurath; the latter Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer and Habermas. Among the most influential philosophical ancestors of the former are the British empiricists, especially Hume. The Continental tradition, on the other hand, has conspicuous roots in German idealism after Kant, and in particular in Hegel, and in Hegel’s materialist successor, Marx. Descartes’ influence is significant in both traditions: His split between the res cogitans – the thinking subject – and the res extensa – the extended or material object – lies at the heart of the empiricist understanding of knowledge as the recognition and combination ‘inside’ the mind of the “sensations” or “ideas” caused by the ‘outside’ objects. It is thus foundational to much analytical epistemology, taken up with the question of how concepts and theories correspond to phenomena in the world; what role empirical observations have in establishing and investigating such correspondence; and how language mediates, enables, constitutes, or hinders the process (Bhaskar, 1975, 1986; BonJour, 1985; Fine, 1991; Goodman, 1955; Popper, 1972; Quine, 1951, 1971; Sellars, 1963; Wittgenstein, 1921/1984, to mention just a few). Likewise, Descartes’ methodological doubt as well as the priority he accorded to mind over body was a major source of influence for Husserl in his development of phenomenology. Later phenomenologists such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty have rejected Husserl’s outset in individual consciousness and have instead (in line with the Hegelian-Marxian ancestry) undertaken phenomenological investigations of the person as always already in the world. The Cartesian beginning of phenomenology has, however, been important as the framing which they had to transcend. Arguably, both Sein und Zeit and Phenomenologie de la Perception are written as struggles to find a vocabulary which transcends the Cartesian inheritance in Western philosophy in general and in Husserlian philosophy in particular. Moreover, other phenomenologists such as the existentialist, Sartre, have carried forth the Cartesian trend in Husserl in a much more direct way, taking their outset as he did in individual consciousness (Sartre, 1943). Throughout both strands of Western philosophy, though most extensively discussed within analytical philosophy, Descartes’ split between res cogitans and res extensa has been decisive for the formulation of classic philosophical problems such as the mind-body problem (discussed fairly recently in e.g. Almog, 2005; Gallagher & Zahavi, 2008; Kim, 2000; McGinn, 1989; Nagel, 1986; Searle, 1983); the problem of other minds (cf. e.g. Gallagher & Zahavi, 2008; Hyslop & Jackson, 1972; McGinn, 1984; Melnyk, 1994; Nagel, 1986; Overgaard, 2006; Pargetter, 1984) and the problem of the external world, now often phrased in Putnam’s terms as the question how we know that we are not “brains in a vat” (e.g. BonJour, 1999; Brueckner, 1986; Forbes, 1995; Johnston, 1996; Putnam, 1981; Stroud, 1996).

Over the last decades, several philosophers have attempted to bridge the two strands, especially in the direction of bringing Continental insights to bear on issues and discussions within the analytical tradition. Key figures here are Dreyfus, Rorty, and Taylor who have in different ways introduced Heidegger (Dreyfus and Rorty), Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (Dreyfus), Derrida (Rorty), Gadamer and Hegel (Taylor) to analytical debates about cognition, knowledge, language, agency, and the human condition (Dreyfus, 1979, 1991, 2002; R. Rorty, 1980, 1991; Taylor, 1975, 1985a, 1985b). Dreyfus and Rorty in particular have expanded on the similarities between the writings of the later Wittgenstein and of Heidegger (especially Sein und Zeit) to develop their respective views; Dreyfus on the nature of skill and human practice and the implications for the project of artificial intelligence; Rorty on language, truth, and the state of traditional epistemology. Dreyfus’ focus on utilizing Continental philosophy to critique artificial intelligence has been taken up by others (Winograd & Flores, 1986). His perception of phenomenology as significant for Anglo-American discussions of cognition, consciousness, and cognitive science is shared by many theorists within the field of ‘embodied cognition’, albeit in ways that differ somewhat to his approach: These theorists typically propound the existence of levels of non-conscious information processing which contradicts the way Dreyfus takes up Merleau-Ponty (e.g. Lakoff & Johnson, 1999; Sheets-Johnstone, 1990, 1999; Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991). Most recently, phenomenologists such as Gallagher, Zahavi, and Noë (Gallagher, 2005; Gallagher & Zahavi, 2008; Noë, 2009), educated and working within an atmosphere dominated by the analytical tradition, have forcefully set forth Husserlian and Merleau-Pontian arguments in debates on consciousness and cognitive science.

Inspirations have also gone the other way. Habermas has made extensive use of the later Wittgenstein’s writings on language games and of speech-act theory as advanced by Austin (1962/1975) and Searle (1979, 1983, 1985) in the development of his theory of communicative action (Habermas, 1985). Similarly, one source of inspiration (among others) for Bourdieu in the development of his concept of habitus was Wittgenstein’s rule-following considerations (Bourdieu, 1977, e.g. pp. 37ff; 1990) as well as his notion of language game. Derrida took on the discussion of Austin’s speech act theory in his “Signature Event Context” – even if primarily as counter instance to his own view – which involved him in a dispute with Searle (not altogether praiseworthy for its ad hominems on both sides. For Derrida’s written texts in this dispute, including the first essay on Austin, cf. Derrida, 1977). And as there are phenomenologists (such as Gallagher and Noë, cf. above) working in the English-speaking world, there are also ‘analytical philosophers’ on the Continent, e.g. Engel and Recanati (Engel, 2002, 2000; Recanati, 2004, 2012)

One focus area in the bringing together of Continental and Anglo-American philosophy is the investigation of ‘practice’ and its significance for rationality, language, and subjectivity. This focus is so widespread that Schatzki et al. in a recent influential anthology, following up on a conference on “Practices and Social Order” in Bielefeld in 1996, characterized it as a ‘practice turn’ within contemporary theory (Schatzki, Knorr-Cetina, & von Savigny, 2001). In their introduction, they stress that ‘practice theory’ does not constitute a unified approach and that it encompasses not only philosophers (in this context, they list Wittgenstein, Dreyfus, and Taylor), but “their social theoretical brethren” (they note Bourdieu and Giddens), “ethnomethodologists (e.g. Lynch), “cultural theorists” (mentioned are Foucault and Lyotard), and researchers within “science and technology studies” (e.g. Rouse, Pickering) (Schatzki et al., 2001, p. 10). As witnessed by the list of authors in the book, the target areas of their articles, and the literature cited, not all ‘practice theorists’ seek to combine Continental and Anglo-American thinking. The articles by Barnes and Bloor, for example, concentrate on writers within the latter strand, whereas the article by Thévenot primarily discusses literature from the French tradition, though a few references are made to analytical philosophers such as Dennett, Hacking, and Cartwright (Barnes, 2001; Bloor, 2001; Thévenot, 2001). Still, the very fact that these different articles are collected in the same anthology, under the heading of a ‘practice turn’, speaks to the convergence of interests between traditions. As explicated by Schatzki et al:

“Despite … diversity, practice accounts are joined in the belief that such phenomena as knowledge, meaning, human activity, science, power, language, social institutions, and historical transformation occur within and are aspects or components of the field of practices. The field of practices is the total nexus of interconnected human practices. The ‘practice approach’ can thus be demarcated as all analyses that (1) develop an account of practices, either the field of practices or some subdomain thereof (e.g., science), or (2) treat the field of practices as the place to study the nature and transformation of their subject matter. Note that this demarcation makes the notion of a field of practice the linchpin of the practice approach… A central core, moreover, of practice theorists conceives of practices as embodied, materially mediated arrays of human activity centrally organized around shared practical understanding.” (Schatzki et al., 2001, p. 11)

Within this general landscape of two strands of 20th century philosophy sought by some to be integrated, my position is easily located as one of those attempting such integration, and more specifically as among the ‘practice theorists’. Thus in my arguments above I have repeatedly made use of Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, and Heidegger, often in conjunction with a reference to Dreyfus’ utilization of them. Taylor’s Gadamer-inspired views on the role of articulation in determining experience are at play in my understanding of the relationship between the tacit and explicit aspects of knowledge (cf. section 2.3). His notion of “human constants” in relation to which a Gadamerian “fusion of horizons” can take place ( Taylor, 1985b, p. 126) similarly stimulated my considerations of cultural forms as variations in ‘styles of being in the world’(section 2.4). A recurring theme in my articulation of my position has been the stress on practice – on the actual activity going on – and my criticism of other positions has in several instances been that they over-intellectualize practice (e.g. Carr, Stanley and Williamson, cf. section 2.2 and Article 5), misrepresent practice as linguistic practice (a trend in the English-speaking world’s reception of Wittgenstein, cf. section 1 and Article 5), or simply forget the practice or activity side of practice and/or activity theory (several activity theorists focusing on language and a host of so-called social practice theorists within ICT-mediated learning, cf. section 4.1 and Article 8). The “notion of a field of practice” indeed is the “linchpin” of my approach, in correspondence to Schatzki’s characterization. And I belong to the ‘core’ which conceives of practices as “embodied, materially mediated arrays of human activity organized around shared practical understanding” – though I would wish to add two points to the latter part of the formulation: First, the ‘organization’ cannot in general be presumed to be the result of consciously deliberated decisions. Quite the contrary, to a large extent the ‘organization of human activity’ and our immediate pre-thematized bodily attunement to it is given us as the outset for conscious deliberation. I think this point would be accepted by most of the theorists in Schatzki et al.’s ‘core’, though he himself is of a different opinion (Schatzki, 2001) (which may be why they left the phrasing ambiguous). Second, the degree of ‘sharedness’ will certainly be high – probably more or less complete – at the analytical levels of cultural practices and activity-enabling structure; undoubtedly it will be extensive if not complete at the level of the activity framing context, and expectably it will be considerable at the activity-internal context and the domain-internal levels, too. Without a high degree of ‘sharedness’, it is difficult to imagine activities (being allowed to) come into being. However, the particular significance of sharedness is a matter for empirical investigation, and variations between domains and activities may occur, especially at the two lowest levels.

There is one important source of influence for the practice turn alongside Wittgensteinian and Continental inspirations which I have yet to mention explicitly, namely the American pragmatism with its roots in the writings of Peirce, James, Dewey, Mead, and C.I. Lewis (Dewey, 1931/1985, 1938/1986, 1941, 1960; James, 1955, 1975; Lewis, 1923; Mead, 1934; Peirce, 1958). The influence is somewhat hidden in the anthology by Schatzki et al. where only a few references to Dewey, Mead, or “the pragmatists” are made. In a wider perspective, however, where this anthology is a representative book for a larger movement, the pragmatists’ insistence on practical activity as the key point for initiating and evaluating inquiry (Dewey, 1938/1986) and for deciding issues of meaning, truth, and reality (James, 1975; Peirce, 1958, chapter 6) has certainly played a large role for ‘practice theorists’, in particular the American ones and, increasingly, European ones, as well. Rorty quite explicitly names Dewey as one of “the three most important philosophers of our century [the 20th]” alongside Wittgenstein and Heidegger (R. Rorty, 1980, p. 5). ‘Practice’ philosophers of science like Hacking (1983, p. 62) mention him, too.

Cartesianism – the methodological doubt and resulting dichotomy between subject and object –and the classical philosophical problems it led to played a major role for the American pragmatists, as it did for classical empiricism and idealism and the philosophical traditions stemming from them. However, the role was first and foremost the one of being an outset to be negated. Thus, central to the work of the pragmatists is the ambition of overcoming the basic dichotomy problems through the development of an alternative account of experience, scientific inquiry, truth, and, reality. A number of divergences exist between the philosophers on these issues, but common to them all is a tight coupling of ‘practical activity’ and theoretical beliefs; an emphasis on scientific inquiry as an activity; a critique of radical skepticism; a fallibilism concerning theory and method; an inferential account of experience; and a non-representational account of propositional content. Their fundamental claim is that experience is an activity, both in the sense that it takes place as an integral part of interacting with the world (it is part of doing something else), and in the sense that it does not passively ‘happen to’ one, but requires active ‘processing’ (it is doing something) from the experiencer. In the case of the pragmatists, it would be fair to say that the processing required is a form of ‘cognizing’, broadly speaking, though it is important that this cognizing is not understood as taking part ‘inside the mind’ in seclusion from ‘the external world’ as this is one of the dichotomies that the pragmatists seek to overcome. Their claim is, rather, that experience is of an inferential nature: It fundamentally involves classification, and not just of entities, but of events, processes, relations, and causation, too. We directly see e.g. “a red cat crossing the road be run over by a truck”. Experience is not ‘language-mediated’; it happens in language, with its categories and logical relationships. Equally significantly, experience involves assessment of the conditions under which it takes place as well as of its context. If light is fading as the cat is run over, this does not make us see it as a greyish nuance of red; instead, if there is still some light, we see it as red, or, if the light is too dim, we see it as of “indiscriminable colour”. Similarly, if the incident is seen in a funhouse, we experience it as an illusion of a cat run over by a truck. The experience may be called immediate in that there is no intermediate level of ‘the given’ in the form of e.g. ‘sense data’ which we process to yield ‘interpreted experience’33. On the other hand, it is not immediate understood as ‘uninterpreted’. The claim is that the only sensing there is, is the inferential, interpreted experience. A corollary of this claim is that prior experience, knowledge, skill etc. are decisive for the experience we have at any given moment. Without skill in judging light conditions, the cat would not be seen as red in twilight; neither would it be so judged under normal light conditions without the category red.

These statements seem to echo points formerly made in this Introduction, namely my repeated argument that perception is dynamic, ongoing, and relies for its significance on the activity within which it takes place, and the Dreyfusian explication – with Merleau-Ponty – of perceiving as a skill which requires learning. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I do think there is a touch of intellectualism in the pragmatists’ depiction of experience as inferential and linguistic, even if they do not understand the inference as undertaken intellectually but practically, in the act of experiencing. This touch is what in Rorty’s use of the pragmatist arguments develop into his stress on linguistic dealings with the world over actual acting in it which I criticized above. Furthermore, it is difficult to make sense of the term ‘inference’ without a ‘something’ which the inference works on, i.e. without (implicitly) postulating the very intermediate level of ‘something before inference’ which the pragmatists seek to transcend. This problem can be avoided with the Heideggerian-Merleau-Pontian understanding of the world as always already meaningfully structured and of our being-in-it as a primordial practical attunement to this meaningful whole. This means that we experience the world directly as meaningful without any inference being involved.

In some respects the pragmatists (especially James and Dewey) are clearly not intellectualist, because of their insistence on the primacy of practical activity, both as concerns the assessment of issues worth pursuing scientifically and as concerns their more specific answers to philosophical questions. Thus, they deny that belief is representational, and explain it instead as habits which provide guidance for how to act to achieve certain outcomes. Believing a proposition is to have a disposition to act in a certain way. The value of a belief is its utility in guiding action. For Peirce, this basic statement was understood narrowly, as a criterion of meaning – the so-called Peirce’s principle that the propositional content of a belief is the sum of its practical consequences:

“Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (Peirce, 1958, p. 124)

Peirce’s aim was to “fix belief” (the title of one of his most influential papers, Peirce, 1958, p. 91ff) through investigating practical consequences in the form of observable effects of scientific experiments and he used his principle to argue for the primacy of the scientific method. In this respect, his focus on practical activity has an intellectual if not intellectualist flair. James and Dewey, on the other hand, focused on the instrumental value of propositions more generally, though James upheld Peirce’s principle and his aim of ‘fixing belief’. In contrast, Dewey’s basic premise was that inquiry starts with a problem in the form of an unsettlement of the situation (Dewey, 1938/1986, p. 41) into indeterminacy and that

“Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole.” ( Dewey, 1938/1986, p. 109)

Dewey’s concern thus subordinates the epistemological issue of fixing belief under the wider ontological one of “fixing the situation” (as Smith has put it, Smith, 1978, p. 98). He stressed that inquiry is practical, proceeds through definition and investigation of the experienced problem and transforms the situation. Theoretical beliefs intertwine with practical deliberations in the process, because of their status as guidance for action; they are not just the result to be logically deduced from practical experiments. These basic ideas from Dewey have had profound influence on education where they lie at the heart of experiential, inquiry- and project-based learning (Edelson, Gordin, & Pea, 1999; Hmelo-Silver, 2004; Kolb, 1984; Walker, Leary, Hmelo-Silver, & Ertmer, 2015). They echo for instance in Schön’s description of how professionals reflect-in-action to define situation, problem, and solution in one holistic process (Schön, 1983); in Beckett and Hager’s description of the role of judgement in work and workplace learning (Beckett & Hager, 2002); and in Hacking’s epistemological prioritizing of intervening over representing (Hacking, 1983). As such, Dewey’s ideas certainly lie at the heart of the practice turn, even if not all theorists adhering to this approach acknowledge it explicitly.

The pragmatists’ insistence on experience as inferential and on inquiry as ongoing activity motivated both a fallibilism and a rebuttal of the skepticist questions traditionally drawn from it: Since there is no bedrock of ‘the given’, all experience may potentially be queried, and no proposition can be justified ‘once and for all’. Theories and methods have their role to play in practice and are as fallible as the experience they inform and are informed by. But since inquiry takes its outset in the experience of a problem, it is impossible to question all prior knowledge at once (as Descartes wanted to). Problems presuppose prior knowledge because it is only on the background of existing knowledge that a situation may be experienced as problematic. Precisely because inquiry is a practical activity, the universal doubt of skepticism is illicit. Doubt has to have reasons and its place is in inquiry in response to real problems. This argument runs somewhat similar to Wittgenstein’s denial touched upon earlier that one can meaningfully doubt any and all sentences. There is a difference, though. The claim of the pragmatists center on the actual requirements of inquiry as a de facto ongoing process – one needs prior knowledge to experience problems, without problems no inquiry; hence one cannot doubt universally. Wittgenstein argued the stronger claim “Der Zweifel verliert nach und nach seinen Sinn”((”Doubt gradually loses its sense.” (Wittgenstein, 1969/1979) )) (Wittgenstein, 1984b, §56), i.e. that doubt gradually becomes, not just pointless or paralyzing, but strictly speaking meaningless. The pragmatists did not go quite this far.

The pragmatists diverge on their construal of truth as well as on their view of reality. Peirce remained realist and claimed that truth is the opinion which the community of inquirers would ultimately agree to, and the real the object represented in the ultimate opinion (Peirce, 1958, p. 133). Notably, truth and reality are determined in assertion, rather than in practical activity, even if belief – and with it assertion – for its part is understood as a disposition to act. Despite his focus on practical consequences as that which fixes belief, an intellectualist wedge between the world we act in and ‘the real’ is thus still implied. James’ approach on the other hand was decidedly instrumentalist and non-realist with a primary focus on what has value for concrete life, to the extent that he proclaimed that if theological beliefs prove to have this kind of value, then they are “true… in the sense of being good for so much” (James, 1955, p. 57). Dewey, for his part, took his outset in inquiry as a practical activity and understood truth as “warranted assertibility”( Dewey, 1938/1986, p. 16; 1941), emphasizing that it is ongoing inquiry which establishes what we are warranted in believing. He did not accept Peirce’s intellectualist wedge but insisted that “the world as we experience it is a real world” (Dewey, 1960, p. 295), though not an orderly and determinate one. Our primary relation to it is – again – in activity, and through activity we transform the real.

Inherent to Dewey’s argumentation is contextualism, both semantically and epistemologically speaking. The latter is displayed in his construal of inquiry as springing from, motivated by, and acquiring its sense from the experienced indeterminacy of concrete situations and the transformation of this indeterminacy. The former is shown in his arguments for the significance of context for determining the meaning of a given utterance (Dewey, 1931/1985). As indicated, the pragmatists have been a source of inspiration for the ‘practice turn’ alongside the attempt at integrating Continental and Anglo-American approaches to theorizing practice. Dewey’s contextualism as well as his focus on inquiry as practical activity is here a prime legacy which has served to complement the language game arguments of Wittgenstein and the phenomenological analyses of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.

In addition to being a source of inspiration for ‘practice turn’ theorists in general, the pragmatists also have distinct heirs in epistemological philosophers such as Rorty, Williams, the later Putnam, Brandom, and Price who explicitly label themselves pragmatists (Brandom, 1994; Price, 2013; Putnam, 1996; R. Rorty, 1980, 1982; Williams, 2001; Zegleń & Conant, 2002). Though they in many respects differ from the classical pragmatists, they concur with them in addressing epistemological questions of knowledge justification, skepticism, and the relationship between theory and experience from the focus point of science as practice and inquiry as a practical activity. Likewise, they advance contextualism, fallibilism, and non-representationalism. They all focus more or less exclusively on propositional knowledge, however. For this reason I find their insights of more limited value than the writings of Wittgenstein, Dreyfus, and Merleau-Ponty discussed above in the context of presenting my own view.

I do acknowledge, though, that some of the points made with Wittgenstein concerning what we can meaningfully express (knowledge as well as doubt) have been argued in ways more likely to convince the skeptic from pragmatist courts. This goes in particular for Brandom’s (1994) and Williams’ (2001) argument that skepticism builds on a “Prior Grounding Requirement” for assertions which is incompatible with the inherent structure of human assertive practices. Entitlement to make an assertion within these practices, they argue, has instead a “Default and Challenge” structure similar to the juridical status of citizens that they are innocent until proven guilty. And just as citizens may be put to trial and called upon to defend themselves if fair grounds are given to doubt their innocence in a specific matter, thus also any assertion may be called into question if fair grounds are given to doubt it. The crucial point is precisely this: that ‘fair grounds’ must be provided. This is characteristic of our assertive practices, not just by chance, but crucially so in that there could be no assertive practices at all, if all and every claim was challenged without any need for justification of the challenge. Like Dewey, Brandom and Williams do not argue that universal doubt is strictly speaking meaningless (as Wittgenstein did), but rather that it is pragmatically incoherent and that the onus is on the skeptic to explain why his challenge is not in need of specific justificatory grounds if all assertions are. All things equal, I think this argument is more likely to convince the skeptic than the Wittgensteinian claim that his challenge – asserted in words he believes to make sense – is actually meaningless.

Summing up, I am sympathetic to pragmatist views, both classical and modern day, and especially as they are represented in the approaches of Dewey, Brandom and Williams. For somewhat different reasons, but oftentimes with similar implications for understanding the embeddedness of propositional knowledge within practice as the ones I have drawn from Wittgenstein and phenomenology, they have focused on practice, practical activity, and a non-representationalist account of propositional knowledge. I agree with their fallibilism as well as with the more specific ‘default-and-challenge’-structure claimed to characterize the justificatory status of assertions. I wish to stress, though, that claiming fallibilism as our epistemological situation does not entail an ontological position of non-realism, relativism, instrumentalism or the like as found in the writings of e.g. James, Dewey, and Rorty. It is well beyond the scope of this Introduction, concerned with introducing my ‘philosophizing with’ on epistemological matters within the learning field, to expound on my view of reality and truth. Suffice it to say that I part company with the instrumentalism of many pragmatists and follow Bhaskar (1986) (himself a Marxist, rather than a pragmatist) in upholding a realist ontological position whilst accepting that investigating reality – indeed letting reality show itself in the form of patterned events – is a social practice dependent on socially negotiated norms of justification.

In the preceding pages I have located my epistemological position within the general Western philosophical landscape of the last century. However, there are a two knowledge theorists whom I have not as yet mentioned, but whose views bear so directly on my own that a short discussion of them seem paramount to my aim of clarifying my position through delineating inspirations and demarcations from other theorists. They are

  1. Aristotle, whose analysis of knowledge forms is very often invoked to discuss the relationship between practical and theoretical knowledge,
  2. Collins, who provides evidence seemingly contradicting my position when he argues that individuals can acquire interactional expertise within a given practice without having the corresponding embodied skill.

Aristotle’s view of phronesis (usually translated ‘prudence’ or ‘practical wisdom’) – and its distinctions from techne (translated art or skill) and episteme (translated ‘science’ or ‘knowledge’) –has influenced my concept of ‘practical knowledge’ a great deal, as also my understanding of ‘knowledge in practice’ as a style of being which lets us act appropriately in response to the requirements of the situation. The influence has been somewhat indirect, however, in that it has to a great extent come through the way Aristotle’s thoughts have been articulated in the works of modern day philosophers (Dreyfus, 2005; Dunne, 1997; Eikeland, 2012; Flyvbjerg, 2001; Gadamer, 1990; Saugstad, 2005; C. Winch, 2010). Significant to this articulation is a stress on phronesis as non-rule governed action in the concrete, unique situation, taking into account its particularities in a suitable way. The phrase that the prudent man “does the right thing at the right time in the right way for the right reason” is often taken as summing up Aristotle’s view on phronesis (e.g. Dreyfus, 2001a, p. 48; Eikeland, 2012, p. 30; MacIntyre, 1981, p. 175f; A. Rorty, 2011, pp. 715, 733; Saugstad, 2005, p. 356; C. Winch, 2010, p. 60)((It should be noted that the order in which the phrases are presented differ a little between the authors. In addition, Winch and Dreyfus leave out “the right reasons”, and Dreyfus uses the term “appropriate” instead of “right”. This reflects the fact that those are not Aristotle’s exact words (not only in terms of translation). It is fairly clear that this is what Aristotle means to say, but the precise wording is only implicit in what he does say. Thus, he says of pleasure and pain that “to have these feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way is to feel them to an intermediate, that is to the best, degree; and this is a mark of virtue.” Some lines further on he says “So virtue is a purposive disposition, lying in a mean that is relative to us and determined by a rational principle, and by that which a prudent man would use to determine it.” (Aristotle, 1976, pp. 101-102). Similarly, he describes several examples of virtuous actions in which he uses the phrases, adapted to the specific example. One such instance is:”[T]he liberal man … will give to the right people, and the right amounts, and at the right time, and will observe all the other conditions that accompany right giving” (p. 143). Other instances are found on pp. 128, 159, and 163.)). The term ‘right’ is here to be understood in its moral sense: The context of Aristotle’s introduction of the different ‘ways to the truth’ formed by phronesis, techne, and episteme is his exposition of his ethics position in the Nicomachean Ethics. Phronesis is precisely the rationality of praxis where “the end is merely doing well… [I]t [phronesis] is a true state, reasoned, and capable of action with regards to things that are good or bad for man.” (Aristotle, 1976, p. 209). The significance of the ethical focus of Aristotle’s concept in modern day philosophers’ uses of it varies somewhat. It is definitely acknowledged and present in the abovementioned works, but where it for MacIntyre is the essential framing issue, it is for theorists such as Dreyfus, Eikeland, and Saugstad only an aspect to what it means to form a practical judgement. Thus, for the latter, the general point is that we are in the world as a meaningful place; that ‘meaning’ includes ‘moral meaning’; and that phronetic judgement in action of what the ‘right’ thing to do is, includes taking into account the moral demands of the situation, integrated with the other demands((Dreyfus goes so far as to simply view ethical judgement as a skill, phenomenologically on par with other skills in respect of its acquisition and exercise, and to attribute this skill-view to Aristotle, too (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 2004; Flyvbjerg, 1991). I think this stretches the use of the concept phronesis too much. It not only denies ethics the overarching role which Aristotle accorded to it in practical matters, but also the integration into appropriate acting as such. The implication is that it is possible to demarcate ethical meaning as a rather atomistic feature of the world, independent of other meaning aspects. Actually, this view of ethics is not very consistent with Dreyfus’ general holism presented in other works (Dreyfus, 1979, 1991, 2002).)). This is also the way I have taken up the concept of phronesis – both in my explication of practical knowledge as non-rule-governed embodied understanding of ‘the right way to proceed’ and in the more encompassing concept of knowledge in practice.

In contrast to phronesis, techne is understood more as technique (Eikeland, 2012; C. Winch, 2010), i.e. as the instrumental application of specifiable means to a goal external to the activity (Dunne, 1997; Flyvbjerg, 2001; Saugstad, 2005). For Aristotle, phronesis was clearly distinguishable from techne because the latter is concerned with production – the making of the craftsman or the artisan – whereas the former is concerned with action. Both are forms of practical rationality (“ways to the truth”), concerned with the realm of the variable (the practical world), in contrast to theoretical rationality, concerned with eternal truth (the world of the Gods). Their difference for Aristotle stems from the fact that action does not have a goal outside itself; its aim is the good action itself (Aristotle, 1976, pp. 207-210). Modern day philosophers who have taken over the distinction between techne and phronesis do not always follow him in referring them to different domains of practical activity. Instead, they demarcate the one from the other on the basis of instrumentality and rule-following in action (C. Winch, 2010), at least in the use they make of the distinction in their own work (Eikeland, 2012; Flyvbjerg, 2001; Saugstad, 2005). There is some disagreement on the degree to which techne is to be understood as the following of specifiable procedures (C. Winch, 2010), perhaps even calculative rule-following where effects can be determined precisely from causes (Eikeland, 2012) or whether it – like phronesis – may involve pragmatic accommodation to the concrete situation (Flyvbjerg, 2001; Saugstad, 2005). To Dreyfus, pragmatic accommodation is so much the nature of techne that he considers Aristotle as referring to the same phenomenon as he himself does with his concept of expert skill. Phronesis on his opinion is not different from techne, it is a subcategory hereof (Flyvbjerg, 1991). Dunne, on the other hand, stresses that techne involves being able to give a rational account of the procedures one has followed, where the rationality consists in explaining how the procedure led to the production of the result (Dunne, 1997). My understanding of techne is shaped by the interpretation provided by Dunne, though I, like Flyvbjerg, Saugstad, and Eikeland, also understand it as applicable to actions not concerned with the production of artifacts. The distinguishing characteristic of techne is that it can be articulated. Phronesis cannot. And the basic claims I have been purporting in my explication of practical knowledge is that 1) at the heart of rule-following is an embodied understanding in the doing itself of what ‘the right way to proceed’ is, 2) much of our practical knowledge is not rule-following, but non-rule-governed action. In Aristotle’s terms (though not on his view) that 1) underlying techne is phronesis and 2) much of our practical knowledge is better understood as phronesis than as techne.

As for episteme, Aristotle states that “…what we know cannot be otherwise than it is”, and that “Therefore the object of scientific knowledge is of necessity. Therefore it is eternal, because everything that is of necessity in the unqualified sense is eternal” (Aristotle, 1976, p. 207). To Aristotle, this was equivalent to saying that the realm of episteme was the divine and divine order. In the modern day reception of his work, episteme is often taken more widely to refer to theoretical knowledge in the sense of scientific knowledge ( Flyvbjerg, 2001; Saugstad, 2005; Toulmin, 1996), though this is also contested (Eikeland, 2012). Episteme is not concerned with the practical realm (which is variable) – seeking episteme is, as Saugstad emphasizes, a spectator approach to knowledge, rather than the participant approach of techne and phronesis. For Aristotle, the aim of acquiring episteme was not to become better in practice through applying universally true knowledge, but to be brought into closer affinity with the divine by understanding its truths. Nonetheless, of course, knowledge of e.g. mathematics could be put to use in practice, then as now. Schön’s claim that the model current at the time of his writing of professional activity as “instrumental problem solving made rigorous by the application of scientific theory and technique” (Schön, 1983, p. 21) translates in Aristotelian terms to the claim that professional knowledge consists of episteme (to be applied) and techne. On Schön’s view, a large part of professional knowledge is, instead, phronesis. It should be noted that the aspect I call propositional knowledge is broader, both intensionally and extensionally, than episteme, even in its modern day interpretation of theoretical or scientific knowledge, in that it covers all knowledge articulable in words.

In the course of discussing Aristotle’s view of theoretical and practical knowledge I have pointed to a few differences to my own view. The main difference between his view and mine, however, is the one indicated in my comments on his demarcation of techne from phronesis: As I have stressed several times, on my view the relationship between the knowledge aspects making up the unity of knowing in practice is one of inherent interrelation, not clear separation, where the tacit aspects supply semantic content to the propositional aspect whilst being allowed interpretation, redirection and transformation by the latter. This is in stark contrast to Aristotle whose argument proceeds from the claim that the domains of production, action, and theory are profoundly different and therefore the ways we approach them (our “ways to the truth” or rationality for each of them) must also be different. My argument does not proceed from consideration of differences in domains because I would hold that the same knowledge aspects may be found across different domains. I also would not demarcate ‘domains’ in the way he does. Specifically, I would hold that all three knowledge aspects were involved in production and theorizing, and that action understood as responding to the requirements of the situation (including but not restricted to its ethical characteristics) was part hereof. Furthermore, though experience definitely is significant in both techne and phronesis, I doubt that Aristotle would understand this as felt holistic bodily responsiveness as I do. As I discuss in Article 6, Eikeland certainly doesn’t in the use he makes of Aristotle’s knowledge categories. He seems actually to ignore the distinction between personal experience and practical knowing. The same may be true of Aristotle himself – at least he does not clearly discuss experience as a knowledge form in itself.

I turn lastly to Collins, a sociologist belonging to the group of practice theorists mentioned above. His work on the sociology of scientific knowledge, especially the physics domain of gravitational waves, has led him to articulate a view of knowledge which at once stresses the significance of tacit knowledge for the development of expertise and pronounces that at the individual level, “fluency” in the discourse of a practice and “practical understanding” of it may be acquired without engaging in the actual activities of the practice. He has developed his position in a series of articles and books ( Collins, 2004, 2010, 2011, 2013a, 2013b; Collins & Evans, 2007, 2014), some of which state the position more radically (e.g. Collins, 2011) than others, which he himself acknowledges (Collins, 2013b). He distinguishes between three different kinds of tacit knowledge: relational, somatic, and collective. Relational tacit knowledge is knowledge which is only tacit because of the social contingencies of the given practice or community, e.g. because it is kept secret or no one has thought to articulate it. Collins refers to Nonaka’s and Takeuchi’s example of bread making expertise as an example of the latter (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). Somatic tacit knowledge is knowledge “embodied in the human body and brain” (Collins, 2010, p. 2) such as riding a bicycle. Collective tacit knowledge is “”embodied” in society” (ibid.), i.e. concerns the way things are done within a practice, problems approached and defined, solutions recognized or discarded etc. In terms of this distinction, Collins’ basic claims are 1) that only collective tacit knowledge is truly non-explicable; 2) that somatic tacit knowledge of a practice is not at the individual level a necessary condition for acquiring the practice’s collective tacit knowledge nor for exhibiting practical understanding of it; but that 3) somatic tacit knowledge at the collective level is a necessary condition for collective tacit knowledge. In other words, one may learn to speak and judge as the practicing experts of a field without having had any of the personal experiences or practical knowledge (in my terms) of carrying out the physical activities of the practice. In this case one is an interactional expert, fluent in the discourse, but unable to contribute with novel input to the practice, and dependent on the practicing experts for upholding one’s fluency. A sociologist spending years within a physics domain – such as Collins himself – is an example of an interactional expert. On the other hand, only contributing experts who are able to ‘practice the practice’ and who therefore have somatic tacit knowledge can uphold the practice, provide novel input to it, and provide the continuous support to interactional experts that help them uphold their fluency. Without contributing experts, the “practice language” (Collins, 2011), i.e. the language of and about the practice, would deteriorate. Therefore, at the collective level, somatic tacit knowledge is necessary for language.

Collins’ view seemingly challenges my position that propositional knowledge draws on a tacit semantic resonance field of experiential and practical knowledge. Since his view is backed by many case stories of interactional expertise, the challenge cannot be ignored. However, the apparent discrepancy between his view and mine is to some extent one of emphasis, rather than actual disagreement, combined with somewhat diverging ways of understanding what goes on in “immersion in to a society of those who already possess it [tacit knowledge]” (Collins, 2013b, p. 254). Thus, Collins acknowledges – indeed, it is a crucial point for him – that one cannot attain interactional expertise simply by reading the literature of the field, not even the primary scientific texts. He thus accepts that there is tacit knowledge involved in learning to understand and use the propositional knowledge of a practice. Where we disagree is on how much the body is involved in learning this tacit knowledge. Collins cites the case of Madeline, reported originally by Sacks (1985), who was born blind and disabled, without the use of even her hands to read braille, but yet learned – according to Sacks (p. 56) – to “be a high-spirited woman of exceptional intelligence and literacy”. Collins argues that the case supports that we do not need any – or only an absolute minimum of – practical, bodily experiences for the tacit knowledge of a linguistic community to be learned: “We have, then, the ‘minimal embodiment thesis’ which is that only a minimal body is required to acquire a full-blown language pertaining to a full-blown form of life.” (Collins, 2004, p. 132). Instead, he claims, what is required is that we are “immersed” in the given form-of-life.

Now, one might well query the accuracy of Sacks’ description of Madeline’s intellectual virtues, asking whether his evaluation was, perhaps, biased to the overly positive by his surprise at how relatively well she functioned. I shall leave this question aside and assume for the sake of argument that this is not the case. My point against Collins’ ‘minimal embodiment thesis’ is the simple one that Madeline was not ‘minimally bodily’ there. Though she could not move herself, she will have had all the personal experiences of hearing, smelling, being touched and handled by her helpers, having emotions herself, sensing the emotions of others etc. She will have lacked some of the personal experiences and a lot (or all) of the mastered motor space which most of the rest of us have, so her tacit semantic field of resonance will definitely be diminished in comparison to most other people. But there is no reason to think that the way her personal experiences form a bodily responsiveness to the situation will in principle be different for her than for the rest of us. For Madeline to be “immersed” in a form-of-life is not just to be immersed in a linguistic community, it is to be immersed as a bodily being amongst other bodily beings.

The same goes for immersion into a scientific community. On Collins’ account, the collectively tacit knowledge of a community is learned individually through socialization by the interactional expert. Such ‘socialization’, however, fundamentally involves the body’s attunement to the situation, including the bodily reactions of other people. Furthermore, Collins tends to pass lightly over how much the interactional expert will actually take part in practical activities – rather than just talk about them – even if she seldom handles the experimental equipment. As I have stressed several times before, language has its primary role as part of acting in practice and the sociologist following the physicist around will learn the language intertwined with watching what goes on practically – just like students do. The sociologist will not acquire a full knowledge in practice perspective, but it is reasonable to expect that she over many years of participatory observation will acquire a beginning one. On the other hand, it is an empirical question just how much knowledge in practice the interactional expert actually acquires. This may be a hard empirical question to establish an answer to. The fact that she may fool a contributory expert in an Imitation Game (Collins, 2013b; Collins & Evans, 2014) certainly does not provide an answer just as the passing of a Turing Test does not establish anything about the intelligence of a computer but at most that its behavior is on par with that of a human (Copeland, 1993). In Article 6 I report an action research project where we as action researchers had some degree of interactional expertise within the domain of the participants and perhaps vice versa. We were certainly able to speak each other’s languages to a high degree. But as I explain in the article, the action research project failed in the end because we did not have the knowledge in practice of the participants.

In sum, the differences in emphasis between Collins’ and my view is that he on the one hand accords more weight to the fact that the interactional expert can speak the language of the practice, whilst on the other neglecting the degree to which she actually partakes in a lot of the practical doings of the contributory experts. The difference in our understanding of what it means to be “immersed” in practice is the difference we accord to the role of the body in socialization. The point where we fully disagree is on his claim that social immersion in a practice is a necessary (not only a sufficient) condition for learning that practice. The case of Einstein, as I pointed out in section 4.3, proves that this is not so. If Collins was right, Einstein should never have been able to write his revolutionary articles, marginalized as he was from the physics society.

  1. Lewis developed a Kantian form of pragmatism which accepted sense data and a priori categories which we apply to the sense data. The pragmatist aspect of Lewis’ view is present in his claim that the a priori categories are fallible, not eternally given. Choice of a priori categories is made on the basis of what suits us best pragmatically []